Sunday, May 10, 2009

Remembering Jewish Mothers: Synagogues Named for Mothers and Wives

The Snoa, Curacao. The four great interior columns have been dedicated to the Jewish Matriachs - Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We remember them on Mother's Day.
Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2007.

Remembering Jewish Mothers: Synagogues Named for Mothers and Wives
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. This isn’t a very Jewish holiday – for isn’t every day supposed to by one on which mothers are honored? Still, in the history of synagogues we don’t see much evidence of that. Until the advent of Reform and Conservative Judaism, synagogues were mostly for men – places they could get away from their months (and wives). There a few examples, however, where synagogues have been dedicated to the memory of mothers, and several more in memory of wives and other women – who may have been mothers, too.

The best known example is the Ohel Leah synagogue of Hong Kong. This lovely building erected by Jacob Sassoon in 1901 was named after his mother Leah. Built by the local architectural firm of Leigh and Orange in the Hong Kong Midlevels in 1901, the building was almost torn down in the early 1990s, but was saved due to international protests, and it was restored in 1997. I remember this well, as it was one of the very first “endangered synagogue” cases to cross my desk when I was director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund. Until it was hemmed in by skyscrapers, the white synagogue, with its short twin octagonal towers flanking a projecting Palladian porch, had been for a century a stately beacon visible far out at sea.

According to the website of the synagogue:

On August 7, 1901, Abraham Jacob Raymond, the senior member of E. D. Sassoon & Co, laid the foundation stone of the new Sassoon-sponsored synagogue in Robinson Road. It was an event attended by a large gathering of the new century's Hong Kong Jewish community. 'It now affords me very great pleasure.' Raymond addressed the gathering, 'on behalf of Mr Jacob Sassoon, to inform you, ladies and gentlemen, that this synagogue when completed will be dedicated to the Jewish community of Hong Kong in commemoration of his beloved mother Leah, and will be a gift to the Jewish community of Hong Kong - the building from himself and the site from himself and his brothers, Messrs Edward and Meyer Sassoon.'
Sir Jacob later endowed a synagogue in Shanghai, which he dedicated in memory of his wife Lady Rachel Sassoon, and named Ohel Rachel. It opened in March 1920, and was consecrated by Rabbi W. Hirsch on January 23, 1921. Since Jacob died soon after the building’s completion, the classical-style was named dedicated in memory of husband and wife. The building still stands and serves as the Jewish Center of Shanghai. Ir was once one of seven synagogues in Shanghai. Today. Only one other survives. Ohel Moishe Synagogue located in Hong Kong district, hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish Experience in Shanghai.

I know of at least two other synagogues named after women. Rachel Simon in her 1992 book Change within Tradition among Jewish Women in Libya (University of Washington Press, p. 158) reports that the Tripoli (Libya) Dar Shweykah Synagogue was named after a women named Shmeykah of the Guetta family for Yelren who paid for it. To me this woman’s involvement recalls the ancient tradition in North Africa of awarding women synagogue honors – as recorded and analyzed by Bernadette Brooten in her Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. (Chico, CA : Scholars Press, c1982).

In America, the small classical style Temple Freda on 205 Parker Street in Bryan, Texas was certainly named after a woman named Freda, but there is disagreement over which one. The more accepted view and the one recorded in the National Register of Historic Places Nomination (added to the NR in1983 – building #83003128) is that Freda refers to Ethel Freda Kaczer (1860-1912), wife of the president of the synagogue when it was built, and who died during the period of its construction.

A competing account says that the name is for Freda Tapper, the mother of Max Tapper who was on the building committee. Curiously, the two camps could never agree just to settle the dispute by honoring both women. The last I heard the 1912 synagogue is used as a church, but it continues to deteriorate.

Lastly, there is the case of Curacao’s to Congregation Mikvé Israel-Emanuel (the Snoa), a building erected in 1732, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas. Inside the four great columns recall those in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam and have added significance, since tradition states that when the Snoa was built these were dedicated to the four Matriarchs. At the time of the building the honor of laying the foundation stones of the columns went to (for a price) Daniel Aboab Cardoze and his wife Ribcah; and to Abraham Aboab Cardoze and his wife Leah. During a 1974 restoration of the building, the names of the Matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah were attached in raised Hebrew letters to the columns, symbolizing the indispensable contribution of our women to the Synagogue.

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